Q: How are we to explain the fact that in the Old Testament several notable men are said to have had many wives, whereas we Christians consider polygamy to be a sin, and we Catholics do not even permit divorce and remarriage?
A: lt is indeed true that the practice of polygamy was a common and accepted practice at certain periods in Old Testament history. We read of King Solomon, for example, that "he had seven hundred wives of princely rank and three hundred concubines." (Kgs 11:3) And we must conclude that this was a privilege that only kings enjoyed.
Probably only kings and the like could afford to have as many wives as did King Solomon, but the legislation found in Deuteronomy 21:150, seems to presuppose the situation of one man with at least two wives. Since the book of Deuteronomy was written some time after 622/21 B.C., I think that we can assume that the practice was acceptable even at that relatively late date in Old Testament history.
But as with so many things we have to remember again the fact that God's revelation to us through history was a gradual process. The acceptance of polygamy as a fact of life, probably due more to sociological and economic reasons more than anything else, must be seen in that context. Thus, the practice was accepted as morally legitimate until the fuller revelation of God's will on this matter.
Actually, the earliest form of marriage in the Bible is monogamy, one husband and one wife. The two creation stories in genesis give this as the ideal. (See Gen 1:26 ff, 2:18 ff.) Somehow later Old Testament practice was judged to be falling away from this ideal.
This is certainly the interpretation given by Jesus in his teaching about the permanence of marriage. When Jesus referred to both these creation stories in his discourse with the Pharisees in Matthew 19:3 ff., he clearly saw in them God's ideal as one husband-one wife. His interpretation of these passages abolished forever any idea that polygamy could be reconciled to God's will.
But further, Jesus used this interpretation as the basis for his teaching on the permanence and indissolubility of marriage. God's original plan of one husband-one wife also implied that this be a life-long union. Even what we might call "consecutive polygamy" or divorce with subsequent remarriage was against God's plan for the human race. This new teaching of Jesus who is the fullness of God's revelation is repeated again and again in the New Testament and must be considered as something distinctively new and in all that Jesus taught his followers. We cannot fault the Old Testament, therefore, for anything that God had not revealed until Jesus.
The Catholic News, February 18, 1990 - 9